Sketching a newborn United States in song
On Sunday, the Boston Camerata surveys the musical landscape of the newborn United States with “Liberty Tree: Early Music for the American Soul,” a program featuring two composers that, despite varying fame, anchor modern musical consideration of the era: William Billings (1746-1800) and Jeremiah Ingalls (1764-1838).
The largely self-taught Billings was a well-known Bostonian, but forever struggled to translate his celebrity into prosperity. He ran singing schools while working as a tanner and, later, the Boston city hogreeve, responsible for rounding up stray pigs. He published six books of music between 1770 and 1794: vigorously contrapuntal tunes and anthems, idiosyncratically reinventing English church-music traditions. He hung out with revolutionaries — the frontispiece of his first book, “The New England Psalm-Singer,” was engraved by Paul Revere — and his hymn “Chester,” calling out the “Infernal League” of British generals and celebrating the reign of “New England’s God,” became the war’s unofficial anthem. He died a pauper in 1800, soon after writing a now-lost elegy for George Washington.
Ingalls, too, wrote a memorial anthem for Washington, sung at the Congregational Church in Newbury, Vt., where Ingalls was choir director and, later, a deacon. But if Billings’s music was a record of individual inspiration, Ingalls reflected an entire community. He was a farmer, a barrel-maker, a tavern-keeper, and, by most accounts, not terribly diligent at any of it. But music fired his enthusiasm. There are stories of Ingalls abandoning the day’s errands or deliveries for a few hours’ singing upon meeting a fellow music-lover. His was a life continually derailed by music — happily so, it seems. (In 1810, under sketchy circumstances, Ingalls was excommunicated from the Newbury Church; within weeks, he was 20 miles west, directing the choir in Hancock.)
His one and only book of music, “The Christian Harmony,” a poor seller upon its 1805 publication, became, in retrospect, a valuable historical resource. True to its author’s partiality to both church and tavern, the collection mixed original numbers, hymn-tune standards, and ballads and folk songs that Ingalls adapted into hymn-tune form. (His most famous hymn-tune, “Northfield” — to Isaac Watts’s text “How long, dear Jesus, oh! how long / Shall that bright hour delay” — began life as an impromptu burlesque on a delayed restaurant meal.)
Beginning in the 20th century, Billings and Ingalls found new fame, the former as an example of early American genius, the latter as a recorder of quotidian musical currents that gave rise to the country’s sundry and contradictory sounds. Between them, the two musicians — one an industrious, individual creator; the other a convivial, mercurial collector — outlined a nascent American cultural disposition.
The Boston Camerata presents “Liberty Tree: Early Music for the American Soul” Sunday at 4 p.m. at Memorial Church, Harvard Yard, Cambridge. Tickets $25-$60; students $10. bostoncamerata.org